South African timber industry could become net importer amid supply pressures

16th June 2017 By: David Oliveira - Creamer Media Staff Writer

While the short-term outlook for South Africa’s timber industry looks promising, with positive supply and demand figures, the medium-term outlook for the industry is under pressure, owing to a potential looming timber shortage, as the total area under plantation in South Africa is not expanding in line with the demand for structural timber.

Sawmilling South Africa executive director Roy Southey highlights that South Africa structural timber stockpiles are currently self-sustaining; however, he warns that the industry needs to address the potential shortage, which is expected to hit in the next five- to six years.

Southey adds that structural timber demand this year is particularly high in the Western Cape and indications are that the pole industry is also healthy, largely because government is still implementing large electrification programmes.

After five or six years, supply is expected not to be able to meet demand and plans are not yet in place to ensure an adequate future supply of timber. It is estimated that South Africa will have to import nearly half its pine for structural purposes within the next two decades.

The sawmilling industry is in consultation with government about several possible remedial measures, one of which is for government to grant licences for more plantations.

Restrictions were introduced about 20 years ago, owing to a dwindling water supply and, as the economy of the country grew, the establishment of forests lagged behind. It takes 22 years to 30 years for trees to mature sufficiently to be used for structural timber, depending on where the plantations are located in the country.

Another potential compensatory measure is for the sawmilling industry to increase its efficiency. “At the moment, only about 49% of every tree is used, 20% of which goes into the structural industry,” Southey points out, stating that the industry must try to improve its efficiency, which would require investment in expensive new technology. “We have been talking to the Department of Trade and Industry about this possibility, but whether it is viable for companies at this stage is debatable.”

Southey says that each of the measures to ensure an adequate supply of South African-grown timber would take many years to implement, asserting that the more prudent option would be to expand existing plantation areas.

“Forestry is a very labour-intensive process. If we can’t supply local demand, we will, in effect, be exporting forestry jobs to other countries,” says wood preservative chemicals supplier Dolphin Bay MD Bertus Coetzee.

He warns that jobs in the sawmilling sector would also be under threat, owing to increased imports of sawn planks to meet demand. “Imported timber will also cost more, making it more expensive to build a house, for example, which will affect the average South African’s prospects of owning a home.”

Coetzee asserts that the challenges facing the industry are due to a failure by the relevant authorities to plan ahead and warns that this “could be another self-inflected wound on the South African economy and on job creation”.

“We sincerely hope that the authorities are giving this issue the urgent attention it deserves,” he concludes.